If you were to see me writing, I can’t guarantee what you would see. Perhaps you would happen upon me in my favorite coffeeshop, not far from where I live. If that is the case, you would see my feet tucked up on the cushy leather chair, my laptop on my knees and an iced coffee or a big white mug of tea on the small black table in front of me. Perhaps there is soup there, or a salad, if I stopped in midday. You would see my fingers sprinting across the keys, or perhaps you would see me dawdling without inspiration. You would see me stop with annoyance as my hair falls in my eyes, and you would see me pull it back into a braid as I sit there. My foot is almost certainly shaking away, as though it could shake itself off of my leg. Perhaps this motion is in time to music, perhaps not.
You might see me late at night, with only one lamp on. You would be seeing me with a small-ish leather notebook, and a Papermate mechanical pencil. The room is dark around me, and I am writing as fast as I can in the knowledge that I really should be asleep at this moment. I occasionally stop, and when I cannot find the words, I flick the pencil so that it spins around my thumb and lands back in its place– a fidget I learned from my days in the policy debate world.
Perhaps you catch a glimpse of me while I am in class. I am writing furtively, sometimes in that same notebook while I am supposed to be taking notes. I am typing words on a page on my computer, instead of following along with the class. These two modes of writing very seldom occur, because I am a perfectionist about school, and I like paying attention. I like doing well in class. So I minimize distractions and I almost never get sidetracked doing something like writing in class.
If you have seen me writing on a laptop before, you will know that I keep a sticker on the front of it that states loudly, “CAUTION: WRITER AT WORK. BYSTANDERS MAY BE WRITTEN INTO THE PLOT.” I keep it there not just because I think it’s funny, but also because it’s true. If I am writing, my surroundings do influence the words I put down on the page. If I am writing near a group of people who are talking, and I happen to be listening to the conversation, I often end up transcribing their words instead of my thoughts. My surroundings can influence me far more indirectly as well– if the weather outside is gorgeous and summery, then I will find it much more difficult to write about snow and rain. If I am writing cozily inside while it pours bucketfuls of rain outside, then I can write about slightly drearier subjects– or else more cheerfully ensconced ones.
I like to separate nonacademic writing from the rest of my life, but I really can’t do that. I actually go to such lengths that I recently bought a small computer just for writing. It runs a word processor and a web browser. I can write and post blog posts, and not much else, and that works for me quite well. In an ideal world, I would spend all of my time on the computer writing and reading. In a really ideal world, I would write with no distractions the way I do when I am writing by hand. But that isn’t how it works. Writing without distractions is the same as not writing at all, because writing something good is like making ice cream. You can make something plain and sweet like vanilla, but you can’t just make vanilla. You have to let other pieces of life get mixed into it as well, like chocolate chips, or strawberries, or little bits of peanut brittle or caramel… whatever you prefer. And really, the point isn’t that you prefer those mix-ins. The point is kind of that you don’t. They’re options, ones that you wouldn’t have if you had just stuck with plain old vanilla ice cream.
That’s why none of my favorite writing spots are entirely without their distractions. I may not like the inability to focus on what I’m writing, but my long-term projects have all been influenced by those distractions and surroundings– some of them so much so that I doubt they would be anything like what they are now had they been produced in a vacuum. Because that’s the other quality that interesting surroundings lend to writing. Character. Character and personality. Vanilla has its personality, yes, but there is nothing to differentiate one kind of vanilla from another, except for its vanilla-ness. But when there are mix-ins, that’s when it gets interesting. And writing can’t soak up mix-ins when you isolate yourself from everything else.